DRMacIver's Notebook

Adoptive Identities

Adoptive Identities

RETRACTION (2020-06-15): I think the notion of adoptive identities might be a harmful one. The issues described in this post are real, but I'm no longer sure this is the right way to handle it.

Another extract from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell:

Stephen felt oddly disappointed, though he did not know why he should be. After all he did not wish to be king of anywhere. He was not English; he was not African. He did not belong anywhere. Vinculus's words had briefly given him the sense of belonging to something, of being part of a pattern and of having a purpose. But it had all been illusory.

I often hear people use the word "liminal" to describe experiences similar to Stephen Black's, because they are at a threshold between two identities (English and African in his case), but I don't think that's quite right for him. Stephen Black's problem is not actually that he's between two identities. It's that he has wholly embraced an identity, but it has not wholly embraced him, because a key part of that identity is regarding people like him as outsiders.

It's a consistent theme throughout the book that Stephen is very English, despite his African origins. He has fully embraced a very proper Englishness suitable for his role as a butler. He has adopted Englishness (albeit for reasons that are not entirely of his choice),.

He's also black, and is black in a very racist culture that will not allow him to succeed by its own standards. Stephen Black's problem is that he has thoroughly adopted a culture, but a key part of that culture is that he will never be judged according to his worth.

We see this elsewhere in the book:

Despite the fact that the cost of Stephen's clothes and boots could have bought the carrier's cart and horse twice over, the carrier assumed the cheerful superiority that white generally feels for black. He considered the matter and told Stephen that the first thing they must do was to arrange for the carcass to be removed. "She's a valuable beast - dead or alive. Your master won't be best pleased when he finds soom other fella has got t'horse and t'money."

"She was not my master's horse," said Stephen, "She was mine."

Because Stephen is black, he is judged as inferior, despite the fact of his relatively obvious high status (compared to the carrier). The other aspects of his identity are judged irrelevant, to the stranger.

Earlier in the book we see how Stephen is regarded by the other servants:

Of course in many households there is a servant who by virtue of his exceptional intelligence and abilities is given authority beyond what is customary. But in Stephen's case it was all the more extraordinary since Stephen was a negro. I say "extraordinary", for is it not generally the case that a negro servant is the least-regarded person in a household? No matter how hardworking he or she may be? No matter how clever? Yet somehow Stephen Black had found a way to thwart this universal principle. He had, it is true, certain natural advantages: a handsome face and a tall, well-made figure. It certainly did him no harm that his master was a politician who was pleased to advertise his liberal principles to the world by entrusting the management of his house and business to a black servant.

The other servants were a little surprised to find they were put under a black man -- a sort of person that many of them had never even seen before. Some were inclined to be indignant at first and told each other that if he dared to give them an order they would return him a very rude answer. But whatever their intentions, they discovered that when they were actually in Stephen's presence they did nothing of the sort. His grave looks, air of authority and reasonable instructions made it very natural to do whatever he told them.

The butcher's boy, the baker, the lamplighter and other similar new acquaintances of the Harley-street servants showed great interest in Stephen from the first. They asked the Harley-street servants questions about Stephen's mode of life. What did he eat and drink? Who were his friends? Where did he like to go whenever he should happen to be at liberty to go anywhere? When the Harley-street servants replied that Stephen had had three boiled eggs for breakfast, the Secretary at War's Welsh valet was a great friend of his and that he had attended a servants' ball in Wapping the night before, the butcher's boy, the baker and the lamplighter were most grateful for the information. The Harley-street servants asked them why they wished to know. The butcher's boy, the baker and the lamplighter were entirely astonished. Did the Harley-street servants really not know? The Harley-street servants really did not. The butcher's boy, the baker and the lamplighter explained that a rumour had been circulating London for years to the effect that Stephen Black was not really a butler at all. Secretly he was an African prince, the heir to a vast kingdom, and it was well known that as soon as he grew tired of being a butler he would return there and marry a princess as black as himself.

After this revelation the Harley-street servants watched Stephen out of the corners of their eyes and agreed among themselves that nothing was more likely. In fact, was not their own obedience to Stephen the best proof of it? For it was hardly likely that such independent, proud-spirited Englishmen and women would have submitted to the authority of a black man, had they not instinctively felt that respect and reverence which a commoner feels for a king!

To the degree that Stephen has succeeded (which is, remember, only the first among servants) in his adopted culture, it was entirely in the form of an exception: He was an exceptional individual, whose presence was essentially mandated by a white man of high authority. Even then the white servants still had to construct an elaborate story as to why he was one of the worthy ones.

We never see this in the books, but I think if Stephen ever were to go to Africa (he has never been - he was born on a slaver ship leaving there) he would find himself thoroughly rejected in an entirely different way, because he carries with him all the cultural trappings of the English. African culture would be alien to him, and they would see him, probably not entirely unfairly, as on the side of their oppressors.

I think we see these sorts of adopted identities quite a lot, although usually not to quite the clear cut level of Stephen Black. Marginalised people in professional communities experience this problem - they norm to their profession, and take it on as part of their identity, but because the community is prejudiced against them they will often struggle to succeed by it, and consequently their own, standards.

Another area we see is people who are part of marginalised communities without sharing that marginalisation. Two common examples I see of this are straight people in queer communities and men in feminist communities (what counts as a feminist community is complicated - I'm using this as a shorthand for "primarily female and with a pervasive agreement that feminism is a good idea"). Generally these communities are not as hostile to such people as the dominant norms are to many marginalisations, but there's definitely still a pervasive sense of "not one of us".

This isn't necessarily the reversal of the power dynamic it seems. Often these are people who are still themselves marginalised, often in illegible ways.

There are a couple of reasons people do this. Ones that come to mind are:

One of the consequences of being part of a marginalised community is that you tend to start to adopt their assumptions and norms about the world. I've tended to use "culturally X" as the term for this in the past. We tell each other stories and those stories reshape and become part of how we view the world. I was "culturally poly" long before I was ever actually poly, just by virtue of how many people around me were and how much I had started to take on their worldview.

This leads to a problem where you are now culturally out of synch with everyone. In your community of choice, you are not one of them. In the mainstream community, you will feel out of place due to their differing cultural norms, and you will often be seen as out of place due to your differing cultural norms. It's not really just a question of whether you are culturally with them, they are your people, you just lack the characteristic that unifies them.

This often leads to people having big arguments about how expansive an identity label should be. I think the argument for making queer pretty expansive when it comes to self-identification is quite good, but even so you ar egoing to get people who are unambigously not queer (cis and straight but also monogamous, not kinky, etc), but all of their friends are queer, they are culturally queer, often they're even aesthetically queer just because of how aesthetics tend to propagate in communities.

Why is this a problem?

Well, one reason why it's a problem is that being a part of a community where you're not one of them is intrinsically precarious. There is very much a sense that you are there only on sufferance, only as long as people can be convinced that you are one of the good ones. In a dispute, you will likely be seen as in the wrong, and if you are in the wrong people are more likely to turn against you.

Is this actually likely in practice? I don't know. It's certainly not entirely false (I've seen this play out at individual levels, but not at community levels), and regardless of its truth it feels that way to the people involved and the way people typically talk about the outgroup sure makes it sound true.

I feel like I shouldn't really need to spell this out, but feeling constantly under threat of losing all your friends is bad.

Stepping back, an article I really like is "Transwomen and Adoptive Parents: An Analogy". The argument is that in many cases "trans women" is to "woman" as "adoptive parent" is to "parent": Yes, the underlying biology does not match what we think of as typical for that role, but as a society we generally regard adoptive parents as obviously parents except for where there's a specific concrete reason for us not to (e.g. needing to know about medical history).

In a similar way, I think we might want to start taking adoptive identities more seriously in some cases. I think there is a case to consider some people adoptive queers. It requires careful handling - it's not a thing to impose on someone, and it's not a thing that people should adopt for themselves without checking in with at least a couple of others (you'll never get consensus of course - there is no queer council who can make official rulings that you know about).

Whether this makes sense for other identities, I don't know. Some, it probably does (for example "neurodivergent" seems to make sense as a pretty expansive identity), some it almost certainly doesn't (I doubt "adoptive black" would ever be an acceptable identity for a white person to take on, and "adoptive disabled person" is probably almost as problematic, although disabled is by its nature a more expansive identity).

In all honesty, I don't necessarily know how any of this should, could, or would play out in practice, but this is the place for half-formed thoughts after all. Mostly I just want people to have communities in which they can be safe, and I want us to take the fluidity of identity more seriously, and this seems to be an important area where those two concerns overlap.